While Texas lawmakers appear intent this year on pumping billions of extra dollars into building and maintaining highways, another shift in the state’s approach to transportation is gaining traction. Anti-toll sentiment at the Capitol is at its highest level in at least a decade.
Lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills this session aimed at either tapping the brakes on new toll road projects or undoing the state’s current tolling system entirely.
"In light of the Legislature's commitment to fully fund transportation, it is a breach of trust with taxpayers to demand that they pay the double tax of tolls and transportation taxes,” said state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano.
This week will draw a bright spotlight to the issue. On Monday, Shaheen and several other Republican lawmakers plan to attend a rally in honor of “Toll Free Texas Day” organized by the anti-toll groups Texans for Toll-free Highways and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also hopes to attend the rally, schedule permitting, according to a spokesman. The event will be followed by separate House committee hearings on Tuesday and Thursday in which anti-toll bills will be heard.
The pushback against toll roads and toll lanes has been simmering for years, and can largely be traced back to former Gov. Rick Perry’s 2002 proposal of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a massive 4,000-mile network of privately operated toll roads, railroad tracks and utility lines. Public opposition to the plan eventually prompted the Legislature to declare it dead after first approving it. Yet toll projects continued to flourish around the state. Texas now has more than 500 miles of tolled highways, most of it developed over the last decade.
Over the summer, the Texas Republican Party removed a provision from its platform backing “the legitimate construction of toll roads in Texas” and replaced it with language opposing some aspects of toll projects in Texas, particularly the use of public money to subsidize private entities.
“Ever since the Trans-Texas Corridor, people have been incensed about the issue,” said Perry Fowler, a longtime infrastructure lobbyist in Austin who is now executive director of the Texas Water Infrastructure Network. “It’s certainly does seem to have hit a breaking point.”
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he wants to boost annual transportation funding by $4 billion without raising taxes, fees or tolls. The Legislature is considering several ways to do that. Both Patrick and Abbott have backed a proposal from Senate Transportation Chairman Robert Nichols to dedicate a portion of the sales tax already collected on vehicle sales to the highway fund.
Several bills filed this session would require the Texas Department of Transportation to come up with a plan to convert most or all of the state's toll roads into free roads. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed two bills that appeared aimed at killing the controversial Trinity toll road in Dallas, which local leaders and residents have been discussing and debating for decades. One of the bills would bar the project from getting state funds.
"Since TxDOT has for years been telling everyone that there is not enough revenue available to maintain our existing roads and bridges, it only makes sense to prioritize state funds by allocating them to existing projects that have been chronically underfunded," Anchia said in a statement.
In 2007, the Legislature instituted a moratorium on new toll projects with private companies. Since then, the Legislature has passed a bill each session that authorizes specific “comprehensive development agreements” to move forward. Transportation advocates are watching closely to see if this session may be the first since 2007 in which a CDA bill isn't passed.
“I think the prospects are tougher than they have been in previous sessions,” said Brian Cassidy, a managing partner with Locke Lord, a law firm that works with regional mobility authorities.
Four Democratic lawmakers filed bills this session proposing new toll projects for the state's CDA list. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, want to add the portion of Interstate 35 in Travis County to the list. Austin-area officials have discussed adding toll lanes to that segment of the highway for years. Watson said he wasn’t sure that tolls lanes make sense there but wanted to ensure that option can be fully considered.
“I want to make sure we have every tool available as we’re analyzing how we fix that mess,” Watson said.
Two South Texas lawmakers, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, and state Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed bills to add the Farm to Market 1925 project, a toll road in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, to the CDA list.
At a House Transportation Committee hearing Thursday, Pete Sepulveda Jr., executive director of the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority, testified in favor of Martinez's bill, arguing that there was strong interest in the Rio Grande Valley to get the project moving quickly.
“It’s very much needed to get in front of the population growth we anticipate in the next 10 years,” Sepulveda said.
Terri Hall, founder of the anti-toll road group TURF, a key organizer of Monday's anti-toll rally, testified against Martinez’s bill, arguing that the project goes against statewide sentiment.
“Texans have spoken loud and clear they do not want any more toll roads,” Hall said.